Tit for tat

How Justin Timberlake accomplished what the president hasn't been able to: Bring us closer to our fundamentalist brothers.

By Charles Taylor
Published February 3, 2004 10:24PM (UTC)
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It took Justin Timberlake to accomplish what George W. Bush has not been able to: remind the rest of the world (or at least parts of it) that the United States really does share its values.

The announcement that the FCC would launch an investigation into the exposure of Janet Jackson's breast during the halftime show at the Super Bowl follows two other recent incidents in which female pop stars have raised cultural, and sometimes governmental, ire:


-- In Afghanistan, the country's Supreme Court protested the TV broadcast of footage of the pop singer Salma, in which she sang and danced, as un-Islamic.

-- In Indonesia, a Valentine's Day concert by Mariah Carey has prompted concern that her sexy outfits might offend the sensibilities of the predominantly Muslim country.

And back at home, while we are facing a potential trillion-dollar deficit, the Federal Communications Commission has announced that it will spend our money to determine how Janet Jackson's boob was seen by the Super Bowl audience.


I don't care about whether the exposure was accidental or spontaneous or the result of a "wardrobe malfunction" or, as Janet Jackson's people now seem to be suggesting, planned. What's significant here is that the government has adopted the same position as that of those outraged mothers whose letters used to reliably pour into Sports Illustrated following each year's swimsuit issue. "My 12-year-old son received a subscription to Sports Illustrated for his birthday," they usually began, "and I am outraged that this pornography would be sent to him."

That might make us even more of a laughingstock in Europe, where nudity is common on television. And it might even seem out of place here where you can see near nudity on MTV, discreet nudity on "NYPD Blue," or blurred nudity on Jerry Springer, "Survivor," or Howard Stern's TV show. But it will surely endear us to the Afghanistan Supreme Court and all those other Islamic fundamentalists who accuse us of being lewd infidels.

FCC chairman Michael Powell nailed the nature of the protests when he said that the family viewing hour was "sacred," which may be the only time the word has been used to describe a football game punctuated by ads showing Jessica Simpson coming on to Kermit the Frog. And a letter writer to the Op-Ed pages of today's New York Times says, "As a country we are criticized by Muslim moderates and physically attacked by Islamic purists. They say our culture is morally corrupting. Did this show give them further confirmation?" To which the only honest answer is yes. Thank God.


Two days after 9/11 I ventured into Manhattan and saw, rising above an almost deserted Times Square, a Pepsi billboard featuring Britney Spears in jeans pulled low enough to show the straps of her red thong. I'm not a fan of Britney or her music but I will always be grateful to her for, in that moment, embodying everything the Taliban hates about America. It was vulgar and obvious and very, very heartening.

The hypocrisy here isn't that people are getting their panties in a bunch over Janet Jackson while not minding the Viagra commercials. And it isn't only CBS claiming concern for children while refusing to run the MoveOn ad showing the kids who will be forced into menial jobs to pay off Bush's deficit. The hypocrisy is saying that secularism somehow defames the red, white and blue nature of the Super Bowl.


I understand some people may not want their kids to see a breast on television, or even see it themselves. And I know that the offended Americans are not the same as Islamic fundamentalists. They would have been just as offended by those halftime shows of yore featuring Up With People! (Though not, it should be noted, from any surfeit of good taste on their part.) But when a government official starts claiming that the sight of a female breast is a violation of the "sacred," that seems to me a much more serious offense to American principles. The tat is a bigger deal here than the tit. The uproar of Miss Jackson's breast is very vocal now. But it has already been dwarfed by a louder sound: the national IQ going Timber!

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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